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Posted by on Jul 28, 2008 in Politics, War | 24 comments

Victory in Iraq: Not Ours to Claim?

It seems that Petraeus doesn’t accept the idea of a timeline. You can read his reasons here. Right-wingers, who have nothing else but the war to pin their hopes on, will tell you that this ‘proves’ that McCain knows more about war than Obama. I don’t think it proves anything at all.

My question remains: what specific conditions, according to the candidates, must be met in order for us to start to withdraw? In sober reality, both McCain and Obama are disputing about semantics (timelines, horizons, etc.) and will be subject to the same ‘conditions’ of which Petraeus speaks.At least, unlike McCain (and recently, the media), he’s not framing his statements in terms of ‘winning.’ It isn’t the sort of engagement that will have a clear end and a settled outcome. And in playing it, we’ve gambled away more than we’ve yet had the chance to assess.

‘Victory’ is an irrational notion in the context of Iraq—as McCain ought to know and probably does know. As my coblogger said, a law of diminishing returns applies to ‘victory.’ We’ve already stayed there so long that the concept will mean nothing except to those who think like small boys whose only criteria are ‘win’ or ‘lose.’

It’s as if the small boy in question had taken a stick, stirred up two separate anthills, then helped the ants in one hill beat the others by killing the queen of the biters and stamping out as many of her subjects as he could—then declared ‘I win!’ Like the small boy, we have decided which are the ‘good ants’ (those that don’t bite) from the ‘bad ants’ (those that do) based on criteria not necessarily evident to the ants.

Like the small boy, we still have little concept of what those preferences mean to the competing societies and what will happen when mom calls us in for dinner. Will the two societies shake hands and live together in peace (or comparative nonviolence)? If so that may be a good thing, but it’s not the small boy’s ‘victory.’ At best, it’s a victory for the ants.

Before anyone gets upset, I used ‘ants’ in my analogy analogy not because I look down on the Iraqi people but because it’s clear to me that that’s the way the Iraqis were and are seen by the people who started this war, their neocon enablers, and their supporters in Congress: as something smaller and less important than Americans, justifying us in proclaiming ‘The end justifies the means.’

Perhaps the Iraqis will succeed in building a democratic society—I hope so, because then the money and blood that were poured into Iraq will not have been in vain. I wonder whether they will. Before you can have ‘democracy’ you have to have people who agree to agree. I’m not certain that the Iraqis are there yet. The factions are still in place.

I hope—because it is the only thing that will make Iraq justifiable in any terms—that the Iraqi people will decide that arguing in words is better than saying the same things with guns and bombs. As someone of Quaker leanings, I certainly believe this.

After overthrowing Saddam Hussein, we had a moral duty—I said so at the time—to try to sort things out (infrastructure, sectarian violence, etc.).

And don’t tell me about ‘the Surge.’ We should have gone in from the get-go with sufficient resources to quell the sectarian violence that Bush said he didn’t anticipate. After the sectarian violence had erupted, it became a question of how much money and blood the American people were willing to devote to sorting out Iraq.

It was not a proof of Bush’s foresight, but of his incompetence, that the Surge became necessary. McCain was ‘right’ about the Surge only if you believe that it would have served American interests better for us to cease devoting resources to the war at that time. Obama’s opposition can be justified as an attempt to husband resources that belonged to American taxpayers and to put the brakes on the spiralling deficit.

If we can achieve some sort of enduring stability in Iraq, then I am personally prepared to say that the surge fulfilled obligations to the Iraqi people which we created when we destabilized the government. But I won’t know the answer to that really till long after the election is over.

Will the Iraqis be able to sustain democracy? That is something only they can determine. Democracy requires certain shared values, one of which is an innate respect for human life and a willingness to allow other people to go to hell their own way. A brief cessation in violence—and we won’t know till the future if that’s what we’re talking about here—isn’t a great boon. If they can sustain it, it will be because the warring factions have found some principle greater than the defeat and oppression of the others. All I can do—as a peace loving person—is pray that they will accept help in learning to mediate between people of powerfully opposed views.

With respect to the war, I want to believe that Obama is committed to trying to get us out of there and that he will respect Iraq’s sovereignty. I trust so—and this is all that I ask.

As a practical matter, I suspect that whoever is president is going to be subject to exactly the same constraints. Sixteen months may be long enough and maybe it won’t. But I think Obama will try to get us out, and McCain has said that he requires ‘victory.’

There are other related issues on which I have more faith in Obama than McCain. I believe—which is to say, hope and trust—that Obama, assisted by Congressional Dems such as Henry Waxman, will call on Halliburton, the various defense contractors, and their Bush administration connections for an accounting. Enabled by the Bush administrtation, private contractors have ruthlessly squandered billions in taxpayer dollars in exchange for minimal value. Taxpayers who are wondering where all the money went deserve to know about thie profiteering.

Before McCain decided he was a far right politician after all, I’d have trusted him over Obama to call out the profiteers. Now I wouldn’t trust him to tell me what the weather is like outside.

As for this ‘victory’ which we are currently ‘winning’: by now, it’s the difference between a shade of dark grey (‘win’) or complete darkness (‘lose’). If we can do something for the Iraqi people, the war may ultimately benefit them. The troops will deserve to be praised (and to come home), and Bush and his enablers will deserve to go on being repudiated by thinking people for starting a war for reasons that weren’t true and in circumstances they didn’t bother to try to understand.